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Astaire by Numbers

Time & the Straight White Male Dancer

Todd Decker

Publication Date - 22 November 2022

ISBN: 9780197643594

456 pages
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches

In Stock


Astaire by Numbers looks at every second of dancing Fred Astaire committed to film in the studio era--all six hours, thirty-four minutes, and fifty seconds. Using a quantitative digital humanities approach, as well as previously untapped production records, author Todd Decker takes the reader onto the set and into the rehearsal halls and editing rooms where Astaire created his seemingly perfect film dances. Watching closely in this way reveals how Astaire used the technically sophisticated resources of the Hollywood film making machine to craft a singular career in mass entertainment as a straight white man who danced.

Decker dissects Astaire's work at the level of the shot, the cut, and the dance step to reveal the aesthetic and practical choices that yielded Astaire's dancing figure on screen. He offers new insights into how Astaire secured his masculinity and his heterosexuality, along with a new understanding of Astaire's whiteness, which emerges in both the sheer extent of his work and the larger implications of his famous "full figure" framing of his dancing body.

Astaire by Numbers rethinks this towering straight white male figure from the ground up by digging deeply into questions of race, gender, and sexuality, ultimately offering a complete re-assessment of a twentieth-century icon of American popular culture.


  • Applies quantitative methods to the entirety of Astaire's studio-era film dances
  • Closely analyses Astaire's self-presentation as a straight white male dancer
  • Challenges Astaire's own characterization of his dancing as an "outlaw" style

About the Author(s)

Todd Decker is the Paul Tietjens Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. He has published four books and many articles and book chapters on popular music and media in the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical. Decker has lectured on the stage and screen musical at the Library of Congress and London's Victoria and Albert Museum and was featured in a 2019 BBC World Service documentary on the song "Ol' Man River."


"In wonderfully engaging prose, Decker demonstrates how and why both musical and computational numbers count in Astaire's films, and he is also enviably good at describing the qualitative dimension of those numbers. This book will be a delight for Astaire enthusiasts and a must-read for devotees and students of dance on film, while also providing a sobering account of the systemic racism and careful, career-long self-regulation that sustained his successful dancing performance of straight white masculinity." -- Raymond Knapp, Distinguished Professor of Musicology and Humanities, UCLA

"Todd Decker's Astaire by Numbers deftly pairs quantitative analysis with archival research to examine both the material labor of Fred Astaire's dancing body and his position of power within the Hollywood studio era. Through a novel and careful parsing of musical choreography and production practices, Decker illustrates how Astaire's identity as a cisgender, heterosexual white male allowed him to dominate the Hollywood Studio era's film musicals in a way no other musical star has." -- Colleen T. Dunagan, California State University, Long Beach

Table of Contents


    One: Numbers

    Two: Shots

    Three: Days, Hours, Minutes

    Midpoint: "I just / Won't / [don't?] Dance"

    Four: Frames, Sets, Cuts

    Five: Partners

    Six: Noisy Masculinity


    Appendix One: Astaire films corpus

    Appendix Two: Astaire dancing corpus by number

    Appendix Three: Astaire dancing corpus by shot



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